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In the first episode of “Wine 101” Season 3, VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores the early history of American wine. The United States is currently the world’s fourth-largest wine producer — primarily thanks to well-known regions in California, Washington, and Oregon.

But America wasn’t always a successful wine-producing nation. The country’s wine history began as early as the 1600s, when European settlers brought over native varieties to plant up and down the Eastern Seaboard. It has taken centuries of heartbreak, disease to vineyards, and the support of the federal government for the nation to grow wine in the capacity we know today. And that’s only the beginning of this three-part special.

Tune in to the newest season of “Wine 101” to learn more about the history of American wine.


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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. Guys, this is the first episode of Season 3 of the “Wine 101” podcast. Today begins a three-part series to kick off Season 3: the history of American wine. Are you ready?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about American wine. Not just American wine itself, which I have, and we’re moving in all kinds of cool directions these days. But I have thought a lot about the history of American wine. It’s one of the coolest stories, like one you would actually see in a documentary or movie. If I was doing a documentary about the history of American wine, you would see me somewhere in Spain outside of a monastery with a drone shot of me looking up. I would say something, which we’ll get to in a minute, and then the drone shot would zoom up into the air, and you’d see all of Spain. We’d start from there. But I can’t really start from there. I have to start from here.

Let me tell you a story. Actually, before I tell the story we have to talk about where the United States is now in the wine-producing world that exists around the globe. The United States is the fourth-largest wine producer on the planet behind Spain, France, and Italy — which is crazy, because we’re not even 300 years old. A study done in 2011 showed that the United States has over 1,005,000 acres of land under vine. That was in 2011, so you know that’s growing. In 2013, the U.S. sold more than 375 million cases of wine. According to the “Oxford Wine Companion,” this is continuing a 21-year increase in volume in the United States. So that’s crazy. In the 2010s, the United States became the world’s most significant importer of wine. We love wine. With the 375 million cases of wine, which roughly translates to 750 million gallons of wine, 90 percent of that was contributed to by California. So we have to rip the Band-Aid off here, guys. Right now in the history of American wine, California is the most important wine-producing state we have. Everything else is important, too. But as far as what we produce, it’s the biggest. That is followed by Washington, Oregon, and New York. There is wine being made in all 50 states of the United States.

So how did we get here? How do we get to these pretty crazy stats in such a short amount of time? In the grand scheme of things, it’s a short amount of time — especially when you look at the history of Europe and the rest of the world. The United States’ history, not America’s history, begins in the 15th, 16th century. During most of the 16th century, Europeans got on boats and left for other places to colonize, conquer, and live. When I was looking at these three episodes that I’m about to do here, I was trying to figure out where to begin. In the United States, there’s the eastern states and then there are the western states. Eventually, everybody rushed from the east to the west, depending on who you were and what your station in life was. I had to start with dates. In the earliest history of wine in America, which is the early 1600s, things didn’t go well.

Europeans came to these shores, planted the varieties that they knew from home, and they would die. They found grapes that were already here and they planted those, and those made wine, but not the kind of wine that they were used to back home in Europe. This battle between vitis vinifera, European vines, and a long-ish list of American varieties before hybrids is what the history of the eastern part of the United States basically has to deal with. Unfortunately, it’s just a long list of heartbreaks. Or we can say it a different way: It’s a long list of ambitious efforts. As we became a country, we never stopped trying to make wine. It was this ongoing thing, and everyone thought they could actually crack the code and do it, but nobody could. From the beginning, what you really see are captains of ships, crews, and people that were making their way from Europe to what would be the United States. There were a lot of campaigns in pamphlets and in writing to entice people to come to the New World.

You can actually go back all the way to the 11th century — five centuries before Christopher Columbus was doing his thing — where a German cleric was writing about how the Vikings traveled all the way over to Newfoundland in Canada. He wrote about a conversation he was having with the Danish king at the time. He wrote and I quote: “He also told me of another island discovered by many in that ocean. It is called Vinland because vines grow on their own accord, producing the most excellent wine.” The thing is, they weren’t really wine grapes. I read somewhere that they thought they were maybe cranberries or some sort of berry that was not a wine berry. But this is the theme all the way past Christopher Columbus, all the way past when the Europeans were coming over to the shores of what would be the United States and they needed to send news back to Europe. It probably had to be good news because they’re spending a lot of money, a lot of royal money, making these trips. But they also wanted to colonize and take over this new land. So anything they would say, I would imagine, would be kind of flowery. I don’t know about anything else, but I do know about the wine. Up and down the East Coast, as more and more Europeans made it to the East Coast of what would be the United States from Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, New York, all the way up towards Maine.

There was all of this talk of vines growing naturally and all of this abundance and how we were all going to have European wine culture in this New World. And a lot of this was basically saying, “Hey, a lot of great things are going to happen,” knowing that and a lot of the great things aren’t necessarily going to happen. It’s going to take a while for great things to happen, as we know now in history. Even though those were kind of lies, and it was almost impossible to make wine in this New World, it didn’t stop anybody from trying. We’ve been trying to do it all the way to today. We have not stopped.

It really starts in the 16th century, when settlers from Europe come over to what would be the United States. They were floored by the amount of native vines growing on these lands from the Carolina colonies all the way to Florida, up through Virginia and going even further and even somewhat inland. It was a very exciting time. The problem was, every vine that was being grown did not produce the kind of wine that their European palates were used to. But wine is a very important part of European life, and they wanted to transfer that over to this New World. So the next step is to actually bring people from wine-producing areas of Europe to this new land to see if they could crack the code of why European wines were always dying. It’s too cold. We can’t find the right vines, and the native vines aren’t that awesome. Can you come over and help us, please?

That’s when we get to the year 1619, which is the year that is thought to be when the first European vines went into American soil. History shows us that it was the Virginia Company, which was this huge trading company at the time, that sent French vines over to Virginia and with them sent French Huguenots, which are a religious sect in Europe that were being persecuted at the time and they were looking to peace out. So why don’t we bring these French monks who know how to make wine to the United States and see what happens? Throughout the 17th century in this new world, these monks were sent everywhere, from Florida to the Carolinas into Pennsylvania, Virginia. Everywhere that we were trying to make wine, the Huguenot monks were brought to. What’s interesting about this is William Penn — who was a big figure in Pennsylvania, obviously — his gardener was a Huguenot. He was one of a large group of Huguenots who was brought over from Europe in 1700 specifically to the James River area of Virginia. He was in charge of planting a bunch of vines that William Penn had gone to England in Europe and grabbed a bunch of Bordeaux vines to be brought over to the United States to be planted in his garden called Lemon Hill in Pennsylvania. Those vines were planted by Andrew Dawes, who was the gardener of William Penn. In 1740, James Alexander, then-gardener to William Penn’s son, Thomas Penn, was walking around the woods near that old vineyard that his dad’s gardener planted. He saw a vine in the woods that for some reason he thought had promise. So he went ahead and replanted this variety, and it was successful. So, he called this the Alexander Grape because his name was James Alexander.

This is the first hybrid that American wine experiences in a big way. It is a hybrid that was naturally crossed, probably, with vitis vinifera Bordeaux varieties, which we’ll never know because there was not enough documentation about it and both William Penn and Andrew Dawes passed away before any of that could be realized. But this is kind of a big deal. And it showed that there is a way to make wine in this New World. This is mostly around the colonized world at the time in the eastern part of the United States. The Alexander grape — along with other hybrids with names like Catawba, Delaware, and Dalfour — starts making its way around this part of the United States. People begin planting vineyards all over the place in Ohio and New Jersey. Actually, Jersey is making sparkling cider and calling it Champagne, and that’s a little bit weird, but it’s happening in Newark which is kind of cool. But it’s very active, wine lovers, but it never produces what we as former Europeans actually want to experience when we’re drinking wine.

Now we’ve talked a lot about Thomas Jefferson, and when he was in power as statesman or president or whatever, he wanted the United States to be a wine-producing country. I mean, this guy is famous for saying, “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” This guy wanted it to happen, and I would like to do an entire episode on Thomas Jefferson because there’s a lot of stuff that he was involved with that I really can’t get into because of time. But he was monetarily and emotionally involved in trying to make wine happen. He actually hired an Italian winemaker from Tuscany to come and help him make wine — it didn’t work — on his estate at Monticello. He made sure to secure land in areas like the Ohio Valley for wine. He would actually accept wine being sent to him from anywhere in the United States to be tried. Sometimes, he would respond. Sometimes, he wouldn’t. And he was so into wine and making it happen that he actually would taste wine that he didn’t like; wines made from native varieties that just didn’t have the European vibe to them. He would write back saying, “Good job, keep going,” because he thought that if he could just keep on encouraging it would happen. It was never realized in his lifetime, but fortunately, we got there, Tommy. Just not when you wanted us to.

Because of the work of immigrants in this country, federal money, and power, at some point in the 1830s, there’s a guy named Nicholas Longworth. And he established what is considered the most extensive wine production business in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was everywhere. But the problem was, even with all this activity and all these hybrids and everything kind of working here and there, wineries would pop up and they would go away. There were all these little pockets of activity throughout this part of the northeastern part of the United States.

No matter what the hybrids did, even if they were hardy, there are certain things out there that were native to this country — especially in the northeastern part of the United States — that would just crop up and you had to deal with it. One of them was phylloxera. And don’t worry, we’re going to get the phylloxera. In the Ohio Valley, something crazy happened called “black rot.” European winemakers had never heard of black rot, which is a native fungus to northern America. It’s called a sac fungus, and the sack bursts, and all these spores flail around a vineyard and they start eating the vineyard and they destroy the entire vineyard. That’s a problem. And at some point in the Ohio Valley, they had a plague of black rot.

Why is Keith talking about this? The reason I’m talking about this is that at that time in Cincinnati, Ohio, there was a big winemaking production there. It all had to stop, and there were a lot of people there and they had to move. So where do they move? They move north to Lake Erie. That’s close to the Finger Lakes. So that’s an important part right there in American wine history: The black rot of the Ohio Valley brought winemakers up into the Finger Lakes region. I have a whole episode on New York you should listen to, it has the history and everything there. The oldest winery in America, Brotherhood Winery, is actually in New York. It’s pretty cool.

Another big moment in American wine history and where we are right now in the United States is Missouri. From its very early days, Missouri had a German winemaking community, and that winemaking tradition stayed for a very long time and is still there to this day in Missouri. We’re going to talk about that at some point. These German immigrants in the Missouri area also made their way to the Finger Lakes region. That is interesting. In the decade leading up to the Civil War, the United States — or what it was at the time — was very interested in wine. There was a lot of wine going on. A lot of hybrids were happening, and not accidental hybrids either. There were hybrids that were being actively cross-grafted or crossbred with vitis vinifera vines.

Speaking of Missouri, one of the most important people in wine in Missouri — besides the winemakers doing all the work and trying to make it happen — is a dude named Charles Valentine (“C.V.”) Riley. If you listen to “Wine 101,” you remember that name. Go back and listen to the phylloxera episode, and we’ll talk about him. He was studying rootstocks at the time. Also, as this all went on, the federal government got involved. Before the Civil War, the federal government was giving money out to help plant exploration and the distribution of plants throughout the New World. There was a lot of experimental work and analysis going on with grapes and vines. This is kind of the beginning of what we are doing now. But it started then. The federal government was like, “We gotta figure this out, because what is going on here?”

Wine was being made everywhere, guys. It was being made all over the eastern part of the United States, from the East Coast and into what was becoming the Midwest. While all this was happening — the heartbreak, the ups and downs, the stops and starts, all the money, all the frustration, all the posturing, all the gesturing — everyone was trying to say, “We’re the ones that are going to make it work.” But the thing is, because of a lack of communication lines, people didn’t know that vitis vinifera, the European vine, was being grown successfully and being made into wine in the Spanish settlements of the Rio Grande. Which is documented from 1626, mainly in Texas and in all of New Mexico. This is where things really pop off. Next week, in part two of American wine history, the story really starts ramping up.

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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.